How To Talk About What You’re Doing

You’re writing stuff. I’m writing stuff. You’re making stuff. I’m making stuff. That lady over there is doing a thing. That guy you sort of have a friendly relationship with because you can both laugh over that thing on your commute is doing stuff.

Loads of people are doing stuff. Doesn’t matter what that stuff is specifically, it can be writing or making decorative candles or producing presidential busts made of navel lint or poetry or competitive gargling, whatever you’re doing, you need to know how to talk about it. To other people. Often out loud. Often in some other form of media.

There’s this weird switch that flips  when someone has to go speak in front of people. Maybe it evokes that social conscious fear of being vulnerable, maybe it calls back to our neolithic elders taking turns around the fire at the cave wall. Maybe it’s all about the eyes staring back at you, waiting with a pregnant urgency and some kind of unspoken need to have things communicated at them.

It’s a tangle of nerves, a flushed weight in the stomach, jellyfish and razor edged burning butterflies hacking and quailing in the guts. The air seems to be at once frozen and fiery. Your tongue grows fat in your mouth. Your voice cracks like someone dropkicked a bagpiper down a flight a stairs. Cue the possible vomit. Cue the cold sweat. Cue the stack of “uh” and “um” that you swear you don’t do. Cue the weak knee rumba.

Scary. Awful. Intimidating. Awkward. Terrible. While we seem to lose the dictionary for positive words about creation, we can draft plenty for how bad we’re talking about what’s created. I spend a lot of time thinking about that imbalance.

And that’s not because I’m somehow immune to it. I’ve visited many garbage cans and bathrooms en route to speak or seminar or play a game. Many porcelain gods received my offerings before and after many things I’ve done in my life. I get it.

Do you like doing that? I don’t. If you ever find anyone who likes doing that, please introduce me. I have many questions.

So let’s talk today about how not to do that. Let’s talk about how to build a better experience.

At the core of talking about what we’re doing, there are three concepts. There’s pride, an internal sense that we’re doing a thing well, because we’ve got tangible evidence (words on the page, yarn … yarned, etc). There’s doubt, that volcano of insecurity that our words and creations are crystalline and there’s a hurricane on the horizon. And there’s interest, the curiosity and want for the world to have whatever you’re creating in it.

Slide any of these elements up and down the intensity scale, and you’ll watch pride swing to arrogance or self-defeat, doubt leaps to blind surety or denial, and interest bound to obsession or avoidance. Why we move them in the extremes more than anywhere else is probably the subject of another post or another blog altogether, so let’s go past whatever arbitrary scales we can build, and talk practical things we can do.

Don’t lose that interest. Yes, you can think it’s a good or bad idea to go make whatever you’re doing depending on the minute or hour or day of the lifetime, but somewhere, at some point, you thought that what you’re working on should be a thing that existed outside the realm of your imagination. The world would be better with your story in it. The world needs your product. And that’s true. You should get your stuff out there. It would make the world a better place, and more importantly, the journey you’ll undertake to get your stuff into the world will substantially help you too. Also, maybe, you’ll make a few dollars, which can be helpful for buying tacos or paying for streaming video services.

There’s a passion under that interest. You may not acknowledge it, you may not believe it, but beneath the “I want to do this thing” sits the potential tinder to spark a fire to keep you making this thing even when it feels like you encounter “don’t do this thing” from all corners. There is nothing wrong with passion. Passion is half the caduceus along with ability when we’re talking about talking about what you’re doing. You have to steel yourself that your internal fire will keep you warm and ward off the predators and doubt that stalk the perimeter of your brain campfire.

How you light that fire, how you send flames skyward is up to you. Maybe you listen to a playlist everyday, maybe you don the writing bathrobe, maybe you look at yourself in the mirror and make action movie explosion sounds. Do something, proactive and out loud, to give yourself the permission to go do stuff and enjoy doing it. Yes, even when it’s hard. Even when you’re not sure where the course goes. Even if you hit a wall and you need to change direction or get some education. You’re still allowed to love what you’re doing and keep doing it.

And then keep doing it. I mean practice. Practice often. Write often. And if you’re about to tell me that you’re preemptively shaming yourself because you’re somehow convinced that no one’s going to like the thing you’re doing before you’re even done doing it, let me tell you the bread story.


You decide to have a fresh loaf of bread with dinner. You have time, you have all the ingredients, so why not? Bread is cool. So you follow your favorite recipe. You mix the dough. You set it to rise. You’re looking forward to making the kitchen smell awesome. The dough rises, and you’re super pumped. You got the oven ready to go. You put the dough in the proper pan, you slide the pan into the oven.

And then you’re gripped with the absolute realization that you don’t know the first damned thing about bread, that other people make bread that’s better than yours, that no one would like your bread. So you pull the dough out of the oven, about four minutes into baking.

It’s not even bread yet. It’s warm dough. Of course warm dough isn’t bread, it’s not done yet. But you’re absolutely certain that this dough won’t ever turn into bread, which is why you’ve stopped it from ever becoming anything more than some goop you hashed together some afternoon.

You deserve to have bread. Taking the dough out of the oven early so you can judge against fully baked breads is not going to do anything positive for you. Please let your dough bake. That’s how the bread happens.


In that story, replace “bread” with “whatever it is you’re working on.” It takes time to turn ingredients into dough, and more time after that to make dough into bread. Don’t get angry at the flour that it isn’t bread yet.

You’re going to make bread, yes, but you have to go through the steps. You have to spend the time. You have to put in the practice. Mix this. Pour that. Beat like it owes you money. If you didn’t want bread, why did you lay all this stuff out on the counter?

Ability, that other caduceal serpent along with passion, comes from invested performance repeated often. When I say “invested” I mean “not half-assed.” If you want crappy bread, do a shitty job following the recipe and see what happens. Since no one ever sets out to intentionally make bad bread (or bad whatever-it-is-you’re-doing), expect that practice to take time, sometimes be challenging, and to warrant exertion.

The more procrastinatory or anxious may be sitting here at this point saying, “But John, how do I know I’m able?”

Good news: you won’t know until you try.

Rehearse positively. This is the part of trying where people find themselves backed into a corner, but they still squirrel some way into lacking commitment. Sort of like when we dust. Sure, we do the big stuff, but how often are we getting behind that one piece of furniture in that corner of the room where no one ever even looks?

This is the object of your passion we’re talking about here. Are you really going to treat it (and by extension yourself) like that? Do you think so poorly of yourself, do you feel so undeserving of enjoying a thing, or (gasp!) even being good at a thing, that you find reason upon reason not to do it. How serious are you really then about making this thing?

Which means practice. Before I go speak somewhere, for days in advance, I stalk through the house going over my points. Before I blog, I talk to myself or the dog about what I’m going to say, what’s the best way to say it. I ask myself how my wordy heroes would say it. I craft chunks of it in my head.

Don’t let the editorial seizures consume you. This isn’t where you write a line, then delete it, write it again, delete that, then pick up your phone to check your text messages and wander into the kitchen for another drink. Rehearsing positively is where you do a thing with the assumption it’s going to be received well. Not tepidly. Not “ehh”. Well. Picture that however you like. Maybe that’s people saying nice things. Maybe that’s sexy pantsless happy times with people as a result of your creations. Maybe that’s getting cake.

When you prepare, do it with every bit of focus you can muster that what you’re doing is working.

Distinguish mistake from failure. You’re going to suck at stuff from time to time. You’re going to blunder through describing what you’re doing. You’re going to monkey some emails. Not all mistakes are proof from the great beyond that you never should have started doing whatever you’ve been doing. They’re mistakes. They’re opportunities to learn, change course, and try again. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, the ultimate decision to pack it all in and give up comes from you, not the outside world. You can thank that passion and interest mentioned above for empowering that decision and keeping it from the hands of any doubters who aren’t you.

Failures are few and far between. They’re the dead end in the maze, but where you don’t double-back and try again. They’re the great surrender. They’re weighty decisions. They’re totally separate from mistakes.

Mistakes are the errors we make because we don’t know better. Maybe you’ve never tweeted before, so you mess up your first few tries. Maybe you never asked a human if they wanted to chat, so you try to make a joke and it doesn’t land. These moments are temporary. It’s that bastard doubt that makes them appear monumental.

Yes, there’s a danger from compounding mistake upon mistake out of delusion or stubbornness, but that’s not the same as failure either. That’s a pile of mistakes and a lack of recognition that there’s at least one change to be made.

Mistakes do not last forever. They might hang around for a while, but remember that you’re the bouncer of your internal nightclub, so you can toss those mofos anytime you like. Failure’s forever. (Note: If you fail, then try again, it’s not a failure, it’s a mistake.)

Cover the obvious. If you’re going to talk about what you’re doing, and there’s a vocabulary specific to it (like names or verbs), learn the vocabulary. Learn how to use those terms properly, and learn how to express them in multiple ways. The more ways you can describe or apply that vocabulary, the more you’re going to assure the listener that you’re on firm ground, and the more you’re going assure yourself that you’re not duct-taped to the passenger seat of a garbage truck on fire as it plummets off a cliff into the dark ocean below.

This is also true for questions. People who aren’t you, people who don’t share your level of awareness or expertise, are going to have questions. Let them ask them. Don’t trot out responses that shut people down (so axe the “it’s not my job to educate you” and “you really should google that” from your response list). Someone’s question, even if you term it as off-base or completely screwball, deserves a response. That’s not necessarily a full answer, but you do have to say something other than “Go suck eggs and get that weakass interrogative out of my face.”

Prepare for questions. Make them part of the rehearsal. It will reinforce your comfort in explaining what you’re doing if you’re geared up to answer a question about whatever it is you’re doing.

Slow down to go faster. That panic and fear shoots us out of the gate at blistering speeds. We cram all the words together, like the oxygen is getting sucked from the room and the only way to get some back is to answer this lady’s question. So you open mouth and let fly. It’s a verbal firehose. It’s hard to understand. It’s hard to know what do to with the amount of information coming out.

Speed is a learned skill. It’s a sign of comfort with material. It’s a sign that you’re flexible with what’s happening. Have you noticed that when you were learning to write or bake or art or yodel or whatever, you started slowly, in halting steps? And then as you got more comfortable, you got faster? The same is true for talking about what you’re doing. You’ll gain speed along with fluency, trimming wordfat out of your explanation as it grows more clear and understandable.

Jumping and stumbling over your words, goofing up a tweet, missing that call to action in an email, they’re chances to learn and try again. You might be tempted to get in over your head, because you think maybe that if people see how much you’re doing (even if you’re doing it poorly), they’ll think you’re really really good at it. The same is true for going quickly. Instead of a vector of depth (burying yourself in so many things, getting so many plates spinning at once), you get an outward vector where hastily done material misses the quality mark, or invites doubt to come party when you’re not seeing the successes you want.

Want to get faster? Keep trying. Keep pushing forward for more progress. Go at a pace that’s just the right amount of challenge and comfort.

Admit newness if you’re new. This is one of those points where you can find some disagreement. I’m not sure why that is, but this seems to really divisive. There’s an attitude of “fake it till you make it” that this somewhat flies in the face of … but maybe I should back up and break this down.

“Fake it till you make it”, for me, has been horrendous advice, because I’ve never been comfortable faking something I don’t already have a knowledge of. It seems incredibly foolish for me to fake a thing I’ve never done before, risky in some way, especially because the things I’ve never done are often undone because they inflame some kind of emotional or mental issue with me. This is why I don’t go all in on teaching or why I never got one of them corporate jobs. Those things scared and rubbed at me the wrong way, so I didn’t pursue them. Naturally, I didn’t want to fake anything and pretend like that’s what I should be doing, because I fundamentally disagreed with them. And why fake anything? Why prop up any artifice, even if it’s to trick yourself? I don’t want to trick myself, I want to go do stuff and get better at it.

Which is why I advocate for admitting you’re new at doing something if you’re new at it. It doesn’t excuse the mistakes, it doesn’t white them out. But it does reduce the urge to castigate yourself for making them in the first place. Yes, you’ve never tried something before. Great! Anyone who gets furious with you that you’re not doing it right is a jerk, so don’t concern yourself with their opinions. Don’t dogpile on yourself because this is your first time. Everyone’s had a first time. Chances are, everyone’s had a second time too. And after you do whatever you’re doing, you won’t be as new at it. Keep doing it, get less new. That’s the beauty of the idea – you don’t trick anyone, you’re honest, you don’t fall into the thresher of doubt that you’re “supposed” to be at some level other than inexperienced. Just be patient, keep at it. It will get easier. You’ll get better at it.

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Throughout these nearly 2800 words, I’ve used “doing something” (or some variant) a lot. Just replace “something” with whatever you’re doing or creating. And then talk about it. Wherever. Social media. In person. Both. Get a skywriter. Throw yourself a parade. Make the neighborhood kids get tattoos. Mow a billboard into your lawn.

Just talk about what you’re doing. You’ll get better at it the more you do it.

See you later this week for #InboxWednesday.

 

 

0 thoughts on “How To Talk About What You’re Doing

  1. What you’re doing is important and valid because you’re doing it, and because you believe it’s worth it.

    It’s not for someone else to determine what you should do creatively or with your own time.

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